When ‘SNL’ Was About More Than Just Jokes

Michael O’Donoghue saw no difference between comedy and tragedy. Making people laugh was easy, low; getting them to think and feel was the ultimate goal. That is, if you were a serious humorist and not some joke writing hack.

Poring through his files while researching my book, Mr. Mike, I discovered numerous surreal or dramatic concepts meant to break up SNL’s structure. None were used. Lorne had the hottest comedy show in a generation. “Hard laughs, more of the same,” grumbled Michael. After three seasons, he was gone.

I suppose you can’t blame Lorne. Who would mess with such a winning, lasting formula? But before SNL settled into its current format, Lorne allowed all manner of comedic expression which made the show unique to begin with. This included pieces and films that weren’t intended to get laughs. Indeed, there was a time when SNL could make you cry — from human meaning, not horrible sketch ideas. Once The Coneheads, Blues Brothers, and Roseanne Roseannadanna took center stage, that part of SNL’s development was pretty much over.

This creative variety stemmed from the time of SNL’s birth. Audiences were familiar with offbeat ideas. Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines, attempted assassinations, and underground terrorist groups exposed Americans to harsher realities, something they were anxious to get beyond (on which Steve Martin wisely bet, making him famous in the process). Assembling talent from alternative venues ensured that Lorne’s show would reflect some of these realities, primarily in SNL’s first two seasons.

The show was then more theater-oriented. The audience surrounded home base in camera-shot, their reactions part of the bit. Many of the stages were built at audience level; you could see their darkened heads during a sketch, reinforcing the show’s intimacy. Booking Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor guaranteed a direct, uncompromising connection. Each helped set an early edgy tone for SNL. But it was the staff who pushed show into interesting areas.

Once Albert Brooks’ SNL deal ended, Gary Weis became the show’s filmmaker. Unlike Brooks, Weis rarely appeared on camera. He preferred finding odd little nooks around New York, giving average people network access. Weis occasionally provoked, blasting violence in sports, or having a schoolroom of African-American children recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all” uttered by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (played by Garrett Morris), whose murder conviction was a symbol of American racism. Weis also made the most heartfelt film in SNL history, where people greet loved ones at an airport to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” It simply promoted love. Not as a joke, but as a shared human value.

SNL’s original writers were a very diverse group, few in number, strong in execution. You recognized a distinctive voice in each sketch. A certain mood. A type of joke. It was before the show was written by committee, countless thumb prints on every page. And while the original mix contained truly singular minds, it was Marilyn Suzanne Miller who transcended the common sketch. In a sense, Miller was a throwback to 1950s live drama, her pieces seemingly part of a larger play. She could be funny, no surprise given her work on James L. Brooks’ shows. But it was Lorne who let her explore deeper areas.

Miller’s scenes featured people struggling for definition. What humor there was rose from their conflicts, their desires. In one, Dan Aykroyd is a working class man treating his wife, Shelley Duvall, to a cafeteria dinner. Duvall begs for her husband’s attention as he rhapsodizes about his custom van. In the time it takes for them to get their food, we learn much about their relationship and empty lives. In another, Tess, played by Lily Tomlin, invites a salesman into her apartment simply to have someone to talk to. As he tries to stay on topic, Tess rambles on about her life, her family, and ultimately her loneliness. The frustrated salesman leaves. Tess shrugs and watches The Three Stooges, eating cereal out of the box.

For me the ultimate Marilyn Miller piece featured John Belushi and Sissy Spacek as a young blue collar couple wrestling with impotence. It’s a beautifully written and acted scene. It showed that if given the right material, Belushi could hold his own with an Academy Award winning actress. And like Miller’s overall work, no jokes are tacked on for the sake of getting laughs. There’s nothing artificial in these sketches. The audience is trusted to make its own humorous connections, to the extent that any exist.

Forgive me if I sound plaintive or nostalgic. This is the SNL I grew up with and that shaped me comedically. I’ve watched the show during its entire run, with varied levels of interest, and though there have been some sterling moments since the original days, the idea of softer, more dramatic pieces has passed into the ether. Corporate comedy demands endless laughs, regardless of weight or meaning. The more disposable, the better. Anything with heart or emotion is suspect, if not immediately dismissed or mocked.

Too bad. The current cast is certainly capable of quieter, more serious pieces. Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Nasim Pedrad and Taran Killam would shine in sketches set in less wacky surroundings. Playing those left behind. Kicked to the curb. Forgotten. Despised. There is plenty of alienation to tap into. Perhaps the audience would reject this, conditioned as they are to loud gag fests. But we’re still human, despite what the culture tells us. This can be revealed in our comedy. It should.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

When ‘SNL’ Was About More Than Just Jokes